Monastery Madness

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While in Pai, a friend and I decided we should do some meditating. Maybe I’ve just been hanging out with more hippies in the past year, but during my time in Melbourne, I heard about Vipassana meditation a lot. Friends tossed around the words ‘life-changing’ and ‘fulfilling’ and it seemed to mesh with the reading I was doing on being present.

‘It’ll be fun,’ my friend Sarah said.

I was still on the fence, but the fact that we were staying at Spicypai Hostel in a 26-bed dorm was good encouragement to leave town. Our room was a giant wooden bungalow, with three levels of bunk beds, filled with snorers and partiers and things that go bump in the night. Giant 70L backpacks had a tendency to go tumbling in the middle of the night, landing with such a solid thump that at one point in the night Sarah whispered ‘Was that a body?’

‘No,’ came the answer from someone straggling in from a night out. ‘I’ve heard people fall out of those top bunks below. They land with an uuuunnnghhh sound.’

A stay at a silent, remote monastery was starting to sound pretty good.

As if by fate, the night that Sarah and I were researching meditation retreats, we met a Swedish girl who had just returned from three days at Wat Tam Wua, a forest monastery a few hours out of Pai. She introduced me to salty, deep-fried broad beans, which I found myself addicted to, so my brain instantly decided to trust whatever words came out of her mouth.

‘Try these broad beans,’ she said.

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘Go meditate,’ she said.

‘Okay,’ I said.

And so we were off to Wat Tam Wua the following morning. It was a 3-hour ride through winding mountains before we pulled into a long driveway, surrounded by jutting mountains and plenty of shrubbery. People walked around in white clothing looking peaceful and a cluster of monks stood outside a hut. Sarah and I were greeted by a cheery nun named Sue, who didn’t explain much about the process and mostly said, ‘Just do what everyone else is doing, and you should be fine.’ She led us to a bungalow of our own, where she handed us some white clothing. ‘Change,’ she instructed happily. ‘Someone will bring beds later!’

Feeling out of place in my shorts and ragged t-shirt, I decided to change into the fisherman’s pants Sue had left me with. However, somewhere between the point where I had removed my shorts and picked up my white pants, a Thai man in white had bustled quickly into the room with some mats. I was so busy chatting away to Sarah that I didn’t even notice I was accidentally flashing someone until he made some kind of surprised, unhappy noise in Thai. He tried backing out of the room with the mats, still speaking in Thai.

‘Sorry!’ I yelped, holding up my pants to cover my underwear and walking crab-style into our little bathroom. ‘Sorry! Sorry!’

Evening chanting

The first event we experienced at Wat Tam Wua was the evening chanting and meditation. The Abbott, the monk who led the meditation, was very smiley and welcoming. We quickly got down to the main event of the evening, however, which began with chanting in three languages. You could tell who had been there a while by the fact that they were perfectly in tune; newcomers, like Sarah and I, blundered and chopped our way through the words like drunken sailors. At least I learned to pronounce a few Thai words more accurately.

This was followed by 40 minutes of sitting meditation, in which 40 new parts of my body ached, and during which I mainly thought about all of the delicious things I would not be eating for dinner, which isn’t a thing at meditation retreats.

We got back to our room and laughed and set up our sleeping mats. Sarah’s stomach grumbled back at me when I said good night.

Morning offerings

Mornings start early at a monastery. There’s something nice about waking up before the sun, stirring your coffee in the silent company of others, sitting on mats. We served white rice into bowls and sat in lines leading up to the monks’ seats at the head of the hall. The group of 40-odd people sat, rice in front of them, and waited for the monks.

Now, I’d understood that the first event of the morning was a rice offering to the monks, so this made sense. However, people then began picking up their bowls and chopping into the rice with their spoons. Feeling strange just sitting their unmoving, I followed Sue’s advice – ‘just do what everyone else is doing.’ So I picked up my bowl and went to scoop some rice into my mouth, only to have Sarah grab my arm and whisper-shout ‘Don’t!’

‘What?’ I mouthed back. ‘Everyone else is eating!’

‘No they’re not,’ she whispered. ‘They’re breaking up the rice for the monks.’

Aaaaahh. And so they were. I put my bowl back down and died of shame a little bit.

Rule #2 of Etiquette at Wat Tam Wua – ‘Proper behaviour is required.’

The rice offering is meant to be a symbol of how the community cares for the monks, and it really is reflected in the process. Once the monks had been served, we put away our hall mats, tucked into a delicious all-vegetarian breakfast of our own, and began a day full of meditating.

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First off, meditation is really fucking hard.

At Wat Tam Wua, they begin with walking meditation, which I found easiest of the three types that we practiced. You walk very, very slowly around the beautiful gardens of the monastery, which is enjoyable in the morning. Your eyes have enough to look at without your brain feeling the need to work in overdrive. By the afternoon, the bugs are out, so your very, very slow steps are contrasted with sharp, irritated slaps at the mosquitoes that try to take advantage of your zen. It also all looks a bit like a zombie walk, but you get over that fairly quickly when you realize that the slow walking makes meditation easier.

Next up was sitting meditation, which I found hardest. Not only do you have to deal with your back hurting, but now your eyes are closed, and your mind starts to think of anything and everything – how will I survive with my last meal being at 11am? Should I apply to grad school in January? I really need to renew my passport. However, with guidance from the monks, you do (slowly) learn to draw your mind back to your breath, which is a lesson you take with you and can use daily.

Finally, there’s 40 minutes of laying meditation, which can quickly turn into sleeping meditation if you’re not careful. Now that your back doesn’t ache, it’s easier to focus on meditating – but I did hear a few snores blooming out of the crowd. None of them were mine, thank God, since I’d already embarrassed myself enough on this trip.


Ride home

People recommend that you stay longer than three days at a meditation retreat (or monastery) to actually get fully into the meditation. I’d agree – the first couple of days are hard, and it’s probably advantageous to get into the routine of things. However, it was a nice way to get a taste of meditation, and Wat Tam Wua was a welcoming place to do it.

To leave, Sue called a truck for us that morning, and we piled into the back. Sarah gave me a bottle of water, which I made the mistake of drinking, because I should know better by now. Our trip ended up being longer, as we picked up a Burmese woman, a Thai woman who promptly fell asleep on half the trunk bench, and a Thai man who loaded 11 bags of eggplants onto the floor of the truck.

As we bumped and careened our way back to Pai, I told Sarah, ‘I need to pee.’

‘I’m sure we’ll stop somewhere,’ she said.

We stopped nowhere. About an hour later, at bursting point, I asked Sarah how far out of Pai we were.

‘Probably 45 minutes. An hour tops.’

‘Tell the driver to stop the car.’ I figured I’d peed in bushes before, and there was no way I was making it another hour.

Sarah climbed – climbed – over the bags of eggplants to reach the gate between the back of the truck and the driver. His English wasn’t great, but somehow she got across the idea that he should stop the truck. I ran out and peed in the closest thing there was to a bush, only to look up and see that I had an audience of the driver, the Thai woman (who had previously slept through the gnarliest of potholes), and the man with all the eggplants.

‘Oh good,’ I said. ‘Thanks for stopping.’

Luckily for us, Sarah had miscalculated and it was actually only two minutes back to Pai from my wildly inappropriate roadside pit stop.




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